Woolen Hills? City Walk development bringing big changes

Woolen Hills? City Walk development bringing big changes

It’s a few minutes before the lunch rush at Beer Run, and from a table near the front of their restaurant, stepbrothers and co-owners Josh Hunt and John Woodriff can see a line of white contractor’s pickups parked along Carlton Avenue, and behind it, a mountain of red dirt rearing up where just weeks ago there was little more than scrub and brush. The clatter of dishes from behind the bar is periodically overwhelmed by the sound of diesel engines.

“Every five minutes, there’s a dump truck moving some earth out of there,” said Hunt.

They’re watching, in real time, the creation of a new neighborhood unto itself: City Walk, a 301-unit, market-rate apartment complex built by Coran Capshaw’s Riverbend Management.

The rusty, working-class backyard of Downtown Charlottesville has taken tentative steps toward redevelopment in the last decade, though the mostly industrial buffer along the train tracks east of the Pavilion remains something of a no-man’s land. City Walk, long planned for the site previously best known for its historic coal tower, will annex the emerging community at Market and Meade to Downtown with a crucial connector road and bike and pedestrian path stretching about a quarter of a mile from Water Street to Carlton Avenue. Home to hundreds when it’s completed in less than two years, it will be a neighborhood unto itself, and while the business community is eager for the influx of young professionals and the lifeline to the Mall, the surrounding communities are wary at best, despite assurances from the city that traffic impacts will be minimal.

It’s worth watching what happens. City Walk is part of a trend toward high-density builds in the city, and situated as it is at the nexus of old neighborhoods and underutilized industrial land, it’s something of a test case, representing all the hopes and worries that go with development.

There’s a sense now that Hunt and Woodriff’s gamble six years ago in siting their restaurant in what was then an out-of-the-way spot near the corner of Market and Meade is about to pay off—big time.

“I grew up down the street on East Market back in the ’80s, and this neighborhood has already changed so much,” said Hunt. “It’s the kind of thing you see with a lot of neighborhoods that get gentrified, and all that comes with it.”

His next-door neighbor, Pad Thai owner Santi Ouypron, said he’s already preparing to embark on a $15,000 kitchen upgrade. Beer Run can’t follow suit—“We’re a little bit hamstrung here as far as being able to expand,” said Hunt, both inside and in terms of parking—and while they’re excited about the prospect of hundreds of customers just a stone’s throw away, they’re bracing for a tidal wave. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Woodriff said.

Dan Heilberg owns the Lunchbox, the brick-and-mortar home base of what started as a food truck venture. He’s just around the corner from Beer Run on East Market Street, and has been looking forward to the arrival of City Walk since he signed his lease in 2011.

“It’s the core of Charlottesville, but it’s kind of the far end,” Heilberg said of his location. And new development is key to the health of that core, he said. The residential demographic may shift, but that’s O.K. with him.

“It’s going to be in transition, but some people are going to like it,” he said. “I think it’s all for the better.”

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. For Maria Chapel, the president of the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Association, City Walk means one thing: traffic. There will be just two outlets for the development’s hundreds of cars, many of which will stream up Locust Avenue on their way to the 250 Bypass each morning.

“It’s going to complicate our lives a lot,” Chapel said.

Woolen Mills resident Victoria Dunham has an eye on the development’s other entrance off Meade Avenue, where train tracks will lie between City Walk commuters and a logical route to I-64. “What will happen when a train stops on the at-grade railroad crossing, and this additional traffic backs up way down Meade and Carlton?” she asked.

There will definitely be more traffic, said Neighborhood Development Director Jim Tolbert, but the city is betting the new complex will attract a lot of people who will bike, walk, or take the bus to nearby jobs.

“The great thing about it is that everyone in the Downtown area has access to transit, and there will be the bike path through this,” Tolbert said. “Not everyone will have to get in a car.” Besides, he said, “if we worry too much about the traffic in the Downtown area, we wouldn’t allow any development.”

That reasoning doesn’t satisfy Dunham or Chapel, and they think it’s indicative of a laissez-faire attitude toward growth that doesn’t serve long-established neighborhoods—or the city as a whole. City Walk sits at the nexus of the North Downtown, Martha Jefferson, Woolen Mills, and Belmont neighborhoods, but even city planners say it’s unlikely the development will feel like part of any of them.

“I can’t imagine they’re going to be integrated into our neighborhood at all,” Chapel said of the eventual residents, despite the fact that, according to the city’s neighborhood maps, they’ll technically be Martha Jeff residents.

The flip side is the worry that high-density development might creep outward, Dunham said, putting pressure on the surrounding streets of single-family homes—including Woolen Mills, whose residents have been increasingly protective of encroachment on its quiet turf.

Dunham feels City Walk represents a missed opportunity for a thoughtful approach to expanding the community. There’s more public input than there used to be, “but when it comes to aesthetics and how the city feels experientially to all of us, how it operates on a human level, we seem to drop the ball,” she said.

Second-guessing City Walk now akin to trying to shut the barn door after the cows have escaped, she said, considering the development is a by-right use, and the approval process was wrapped up years ago.

But City Walk-style development is becoming the new normal in Charlottesville. As builders look to meet demand for accessible, reasonably affordable housing within the city, more apartment buildings are springing up, said city planner Brian Haluska. He pointed out that soon there will be three such complexes under construction within city limits. For those who live and work in the shadow of the coming influx of urban apartment-dwellers, there’s not much to do but wait and speculate.

That’s what Beer Run owners Hunt and Woodriff are doing. The trucks rumbling in and out of the City Walk construction site represent opportunity, and a challenge—but mostly, they represent change.

“It’s just going to be different,” Woodriff said.

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